Over the past few days, residents in the Wichita area have spotted something not seen in more than a year: water puddling in their yards.
Water is once again flowing in the Arkansas River, which for much of 2012 in Wichita resembled an elaborate sandbar striated by the occasional rivulet of water.
A wet spring has eased the short-term drought in much of Kansas, including Wichita.
“In the near term, we’re getting the moisture in, so it’s looking good,” said Janet Spurgeon, hydrologist for the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service. “Conditions are improving. We could be coming out of drought.”
But officials say there’s still a long way to go to erase long-term moisture deficits and ease water access concerns.
Wichita, for example, is still 10 inches short of eliminating precipitation deficits stretching back two years, and that number is higher in other parts of the state.
The storm system that brought more than an inch of rain to a wide swath of southern Kansas – including the Wichita area – last week was ideal in many ways, said Andy Kleinsasser, a meteorologist with the weather service.
“It’s going to help everybody except the reservoirs and the wells and aquifers,” Kleinsasser said. “You need a whole bunch more of these to get Cheney (Reservoir) back up to where it needs to be” to ease water usage concerns.
The same goes for water wells and aquifers, he said.
As of Friday afternoon, Wichita had recorded 8.55 inches of rain since the start of the year, according to the weather service. That’s about 1.75 inches above normal through April 26.
But Alan King, director of public works and utilities for the city of Wichita, said the recent precipitation had only raised the water levels at Cheney by 1 percent. The reservoir is now just less than 61 percent full.
And even with the above average precipitation so far this year, more than 56 percent of Kansas remains in either extreme or exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Still, that figure is down more than 30 percent from the end of September, and most of the eastern half of Kansas is not in those two categories.
A wet late winter and early spring is no indication that it’s going to be a rainy year, said Jerilyn Billings, a meteorologist for the weather service. By this time last year, 11.35 inches had fallen in Wichita.
And then the skies shut off.
Yet local forecasters are confident that this summer won’t be a repeat of 2012.
“This is the coldest start to spring since 1993,” Kleinsasser said. “What happened the summer of ’93? All that record flooding.”
Widespread flooding occurred along the Mississippi, Missouri and Kansas rivers.
In Wichita that spring and summer, April and June were nearly normal for precipitation, but May and July were well above average.
“It was so wet,” Kleinsasser said. “If we can get a summer like ’93, we might be able to kiss that drought goodbye.”
How crops are doing
The recent rain – and snow – has been good for crops in the Wichita area and indeed much of the state.
“We’re pretty fortunate in the Wichita area, from what I understand,” said Scott Van Allen, a member of the Kansas Wheat Commission who farms near Clearwater. “We’ve got sufficient rainfall now to get us through almost to harvest. We probably could use another shower about the time the heads are filling” in mid- to late May.
Jim Shroyer, an agronomist for the Kansas State Extension Service, has been traveling the state getting a look at the wheat crop.
“The central corridor looks fairly good,” Shroyer said.
But a friend of Van Allen’s who farms out by Syracuse in far western Kansas has already lost most of his wheat to the drought and late cold snaps. Out of 4,000 acres of wheat, Van Allen said, his friend might harvest 300.
“Dry weather hurt them terribly,” he said.
The western two tiers of counties are in exceptional drought.
It’s too soon to tell how much a pair of recent hard freezes hurt the wheat, Shroyer said. Wheat that looked to be in real trouble after a freeze in western Kansas is showing signs of recovery.
But wheat in Kiowa County is starting to show damage from a freeze more than three weeks ago.
“The further the wheat is developed, it doesn’t take as low a temperature to cause damage,” Shroyer said.
Van Allen said he thinks wheat in the Wichita area “dodged a bullet” when temperatures dropped into the mid-20s last week. But it will be a couple of weeks before any damage to the wheat becomes apparent.
“I hope we’re done with the cold weather,” Van Allen said. “I think we are. I’d like to be able to get a little sleep at night.”